Court Hears of Croat Soldiers' Indiscipline

Witness says soldiers in NCO positions often did not have enough tactical or technical knowledge, let alone training, to lead serious military units.

Court Hears of Croat Soldiers' Indiscipline

Witness says soldiers in NCO positions often did not have enough tactical or technical knowledge, let alone training, to lead serious military units.

Tuesday, 21 July, 2009
Croatian general Ante Gotovina was powerless to stop violence against Serbs in Croatia in 1995 in part because of indiscipline and poor training among his subordinates, an expert witness told Gotovina’s war crimes trial in the Hague this week.

Mladen Barkovic taught at the Croatian war college from 1991 to 2005, helping to develop the education and training programme used to instruct many of the soldiers who took part in operations under Gotovina’s command.

Gotovina and fellow Croatian generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are accused of orchestrating the killing of dozens of people and the shelling and torching of Serb towns and villages as Croat forces retook the Serb-controlled Krajina region in August 1995 during Operation Storm.

The prosecution alleges that Gotovina knew that his subordinates in the Croatian army, HV, were likely to commit revenge attacks against ethnic Serbs during the counter-offensive, but failed to take precautions against atrocities or punish the perpetrators later.

The charges in the indictment include “deportation and forcible transfer, destruction and burning of Serb homes and businesses, plunder and looting of public or private Serb property; murder [and] other inhumane acts”.

The defence says that Gotovina attempted to control and discipline HV personnel both during and after Operation Storm, but was unable to do so because of the chaos of the situation, with trained personnel in short supply and lower-level commanders proving unreliable.

Gregory Kehoe, defence counsel for Gotovina, began the questioning by asking Barkovic to describe the state of the HV prior to Operation Storm.

The witness said when hostilities broke out after the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia was “without a main [army] staff, without a main [army] command, and without any forces that, in the conventional military sense, could be used for any sort of serious defence, let alone combat action”.

The effort to create a professional army came up against many challenges, Barkovic added, and some of these challenges could not be overcome.

“The first challenge was time,” he said. “There was no time to mount any sort of training courses. … [Another] dilemma we were faced with was whether we could spare the personnel who were out in the field manning positions.”

Because the HV lacked weapons and equipment, the “main factor in increasing our capacities was mobilising large numbers of men”, Barkovic said, and this required considerable education and training.

According to the witness, the largest shortage of trained personnel was at lower levels, where there was an insufficient corps of trained non-commissioned officers, NCOs.

“Frequently we had people in NCO positions who did not even have enough tactical or technical knowledge, let alone the training, to lead people in serious military units,” Barkovic said. “The shortage of NCOs in commanding positions in squads and platoons…. had as its result lack of discipline and lack of combat readiness in the army.”

To demonstrate Gotovina’s awareness and attentiveness to this problem, the defence produced as evidence several orders and reports written by Gotovina on the issue.

Kehoe read aloud an excerpt from one such document, dated February 16, 1995, sent to several ministers and generals in which Gotovina warned of inadequate lower level commanders.

“I have repeatedly warned high ranking HV officers of the staffing problem in the HV, at various meetings and briefings, including those at the Split military district level,” the report read.

Barkovic explained that as late as February 1995, the NCO corps was depleted because “NCOs were constantly promoted to officers rather than to higher NCO positions”.

The defence also submitted an order from Gotovina dated August 10, 1995, in the immediate aftermath of Operation Storm. The document ordered HV commanders to “take all necessary measures, and fully engage in the implementation of military disciplinary conduct and the maintenance of order in the area of responsibility, to prevent arson and all other illegal acts, and to take resolute measures against anyone who conducts themselves in an undisciplined manner”.

Looting and burning occurred in spite of Gotovina’s orders for strict discipline, Barkovic said.

“When a home guard regiment liberates an area where its members hailed from, they come across their own properties … razed to the ground,” Barkovic said.

Under such circumstances, the witness added, “it was not possible for [commanders] to have [a high] degree of control … they were unable to restrain the heightened emotions on the part of their soldiers”.

Furthermore, the short amount of time that inexperienced NCOs spent with their units did not allow NCOs to build trust and obedience with their subordinates, Barkovic said.

The defence also tendered into evidence two reports from 1994 concerning the training of home guard units in the Split military district, and read aloud an excerpt that noted that “the unit of the 15th home guard regiment consists of 70 per cent servicemen coming from occupied areas and locations along the front lines”.

Barkovic said that home guard was a special type of unit “made up of people mobilised based on the territorial principle. Almost everyone came from that particular territory”.

The defence contends that due to circumstance of their composition, discipline was most difficult to maintain within these units.

Barkovic also testified that the HV war college received outside assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross from 1992 onwards, and from the US-based Military Professional Resources Incorporated as of 1994. Instructors from both organisations gave lectures concerning command and control and the protection of civilians during war in accordance with the Geneva conventions.

In cross-examination, prosecution lawyer Edward Russo asked Barkovic about disciplinary procedures in the Croatian army, and Barkovic confirmed that when an NCO does not do his job properly, it becomes the responsibility of that NCO’s immediate superior to enforce and maintain discipline.

The prosecution put forward that Gotovina was aware that soldiers he commanded in Operation Storm were inclined to loot and burn others’ property.

“He probably had reason to suspect that there might be undisciplined behaviour, but his mission was so serious and so great that he had to reckon with certain risks,” Barkovic replied.

Turning to incidents in Bosansko Grahovo and Glamoc, Russo asked if Barkovic was aware that no disciplinary actions were taken against units that participated in the operations.

“I was not aware,” he responded.

“If measures weren’t taken after [Bosansko] Grahovo and Glamoc to redress the looting and burning, it would create a further risk of the same conduct continuing in the aftermath of Operation Storm, right?” suggested the prosecution.

“Yes,” replied Barkovic.

In further examination Kehoe asked the witness to clarify why Gotovina was unable to enforce discipline during operations in Bosansko Grahovo and Glamoc.

“[Gotovina] probably didn’t have enough forces to maintain security in areas where the first military operations were already completed,” Barkovic said.

The trial will continue next week.

Andrew W Maki is an IWPR contributor.

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